Sondheim and Psalms

I was having lunch with my friend Kiki and we started to talk about the nature of religious art.  I love getting Kiki’s views on such things, she’s a pastor’s kid who is now a Buddhist/Pagan practitioner so she can offer a perspective I rarely consider.  She asked me why I thought that modern religious art of all kinds allows in any positive image even if it is mediocre and shies away from perhaps “darker” themes.  I see it in Christianity, she sees it in Buddhism but especially in the pagan world.

I told her that from my religion I can for conversation’s sake narrow it down to three things. First, I think we take Phillipians 4:8, which says:

     Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

and we make it into “Think of only nice things”.  Which is not what it says.  As Sondheim has pointed out to us “Nice is different from good”.  I think that we also take the “I will set no worthless thing before my eyes” and make value judgments based on how something makes us feel instead of how it is.  Comfort and Art don’t always go together, and yet it is nearly a requirement in modern religious work.

I also think that perhaps as a people who follow the Father of heavenly lights who does not change like the shifting shadows feel that anything that is part of the human experience and less than divine is not good to contemplate.  I am not sure if this is something left over from the marks of transcendentalism on mainstream religion or is part of legalism that thinks that we are totting up good and bad marks to be reviewed by a judging god.  There’s some idea (that I want to explore in another post some other time) that anything earthly and of this existence is intrinsically poisoned, and I just don’t believe that about a creation that was called “good”.

Last, I think that we have (sweeping generalization ahead) lost a couple key skills that are important in interacting with art in the faith community.  There are few churches where one may amicably disagree or change one’s mind without feeling that you are breeding strife.  Small issues become giant issues.  People’s salvation is called into question.  It’s a volatile place to view art from.  I also think that as a culture we are disinclined to interact with anything that requires us to analyze or defend in a real way… and effective Art almost always requires both things.

I don’t think any of these issues are insurmountable.  It’s like the way generationally we’ve realized that maybe the line between “Christian artist” and “believer who makes art” shouldn’t be so defined.  It was encouraging to me to hear that these are not issues unique to Christianity, which leads me to believe that these are tendencies of humans and not just Believing humans. Sometimes I forget that there are humans in that odd ritualistic amalgamation of church that is also Church.

There are so many believers out there that make art, and yet our access to them is so poor.  Walking into a Christian bookstore, or the Christian section of a bookstore, cruising the Christian section of iTunes or looking through faith based magazines tells us that as a movement we haven’t cultivated and valued that. And yet we exist, we are out there… so let’s keep questioning this.  Let us keep this Great Conversation going because it is good.

 

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8 thoughts on “Sondheim and Psalms

  1. Kiki here. I only want to add just a couple of things.
    Firstly, I find that most people whose faith path I do not know have problems with art that is “uncomfortable”. I have always wondered if that is because most humans don’t like thinking about things that are difficult. But, in the world of faith, of any sort, we should be. Those difficult things that test our faith should be the things we take the longer look at. By shutting out artists that raise those hard questions, we shut a bit of faith out of our lives.
    And just as a sort of second aside, pagan art tends to be either light or dark. But rarely is it anything in between. And it seems to be that way for the same reasons.

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    1. It’s crazy, that religious art just a few hundred years ago was pretty free with depicting really hard things, like rape for instance, both in the Pagan and Christian tradition, without seeming to question it much (based on the little writing on the subject from the era), and we don’t even want to depict like, rain clouds. Why are we?

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  2. “Comfort and Art don’t always go together, and yet it is nearly a requirement in modern religious work.”

    An interesting quote. People tend to come to both art or religion with one of two main motives. They are either seeking truth or seeking comfort. If most accepted religious art is aimed at comfort, then maybe that is what a majority of the people seeking religion are after as well.

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    1. That is probably true, and it makes me just a wee bit sad. Not that comfort is a bad thing, but it’s just not the only thing or the paramount thing… and I don’t know if you can have lasting comfort if you are unwilling to face life honestly. Perhaps I’m wrong and ignorance is bliss!

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  3. I was going to say the same thing. Comfort is fine, in moderation. Living a life that excludes the uncomfortable leaves you unprepared.
    Which brings me to… Is an unquestioning, comfortable faith truly faith? Or is it habit?
    Of course, I have separated religion and faith. And maybe have strayed from topic.

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  4. I just read this quote from Rob Bell that he posted today on Facebook:

    “For many people, the opposite of faith is doubt. The goal then, within this understanding, is to eliminate doubt. But faith and doubt aren’t opposites. Doubt is often a sign that your faith has a pulse, that you’re owning your path, engaged, thinking, feeling, that your heart is alive and well and exploring and searching. Faith and doubt aren’t opposites; they are, it turns out, excellent dance partners.”

    Is it cliche to quote Bell? I don’t care.

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    1. This reminds me of a book called “Shopping for Meaningful Lives : The Religious Motive of Consumerism” by Bruce Rittenhouse, which I cannot recommend strongly enough. It made me reassess the way I look at other people and how I live my life I think more than any devotional book I’ve ever read. I should read it again, actually. Here’s part of the relevant section:

      ‘As [Paul] Tillich recognizes, doubt is always an element in existential faith […] faith entails existential risk. Indeed, every commitment to a particular existential strategy is a risk in which the finite self is wagered by affirming one ground of meaning among many, even though this plurality of meaning systems may be hidden. The risk is that “a wrong faith can destroy the meaning of one’s life.” Every person whose meaning is grounded through existential Christian faith lives in a dialectical tension between faith and doubt.’

      The idea isn’t that doubt is an inherently good thing or where you want to live, but that it is a constant presence and always will be. I always felt like doubt only resulted from error, that it was evidence of a spiritual weakness. The notion that it’s just part of the reality of making a faith decision was liberating.

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